World by Bike: London to Lisbon - Humble Beginnings
Author's Note; (can you do these in a blog?) - this is more of a reflection of the last couple of weeks and starting on this trip as a whole rather than a chronological retelling of events, or a 'David's Top 13 things YOU WOULD NOT BELIEVE People Don’t Visit in Western Europe' type post. Hope it's not to gap yah-y.
Sitting 30,000ft above the Atlantic Ocean, 4hrs out from touching down at JFK, and oddly, it's the first time I've had a chance to reflect on the whirlwind that has been the past 17 days. It’s odd because part of the beauty of travel by bike as opposed to flying, or even driving, is that you have time to think, reflect, and let your mind wander into unexplored places and present it with new questions as prompted by your surroundings shifting around you . However, at the start of this grand voyage, I've found my mind been focused more on the day, the sounds, the smells, the subtle changes of the environment from pedal stroke to pedal stroke. It's been 15 days of riding, 1500 miles (2400km), through three countries and I'm not potentially through 10% of the journey yet - but now, with the time afforded by cross-Atlantic flights, I can reflect on how important and how difficult that first 10% can be, or even the first 1%.
The build up to departure day had been progressively more stressful, with progressively interested and alarmed parties starting to realise that I was serious about trying this ride, and starting to ask good and helpful questions. It's amusing because you know these questions about what you're planning are going to come, and you also know they're likely to be good, useful questions, but when they come a couple of days before you depart they aren't without an additional element of anxiety. Questions around defending yourself if attacked somewhere, or filtering clean water when you don’t have access to a tap, or even questions about funding a project like this. Don't get me wrong they're all valid questions, important even, but when they come just a few days before you depart they start to sow some seeds of doubt.
This accumulation of pressure to depart, one-week after I finished full-time work, came to a head around ten to midnight on the September 1, 8 hours before I was due to leave when I realised I wouldn't be ready on time, and not everything would be packed. It can be pretty deflating knowing that on a project you've been working on in the background for a couple of years now, and you can't even get out the front door. How are you supposed to ride around the world if you can't even leave the house?
I think the what helped me, reflecting on it now, was trying to have some humility. Recognise that you may need to break down the project into smaller, more manageable sections, and you can use your family and friends around you, recognising that you can't do everything and that we all need help at times. To paraphrase something I read recently: you need to recognise as individuals that you are simultaneously the most complex and sophisticated beings in the universe, and so inept that you can't even change the clock on your microwave oven. Be confident in your capacity, but you also need to remember some humility.
So that's what I tried to do. Step one was just to pack up my kit, step two to pack it on the bike, and step three to put the bike outside ready for departure - I know I can do all that. I had built into my plans some contingency for delays, so leaving a day later would just mean slightly longer day going forward with fewer rest stops. The delay was even a blessing in disguise as the tighter focus on each day's deadlines meant I had less time to think on the arguably stupid scale of this trip, and the valid concerns about my preparedness, and not freak myself out. If travel and experiences teach you more about yourself, then I'm already learning a lesson in planning, and when I need to seek advice, so it's already positive.
With that in mind, on September 3rd 2018, I headed for Brighton - a gentle 100k on familiar roads through the Surrey Hills then into the Sussex Downs - perfectly doable. As soon as I clipped my feet into my pedals, and started off down the road from my front door the stress lifted, and the anxiety that had seemed insurmountable the day before dissipated within a few pedal stokes. Getting to the start line really was the hardest bit.
From there it became about keeping the next goal manageable and reachable: meeting with my brother and his fiancé in Brighton; riding down the coast to the ferry terminal in Newhaven; board the ferry; find your accommodation in France; remember all your school French. Okay, maybe not the last one, but you get the idea - you just need the world 'anglais' spoken very loudly and slowly. The point is that It's brilliant how malleable and how adaptable your psychology would appear to be after taking that first step
And that's what the last 17 days have been like for me. Yes, shouting Anglais, or Inglés at people, but also making sure I'm in the moment, working towards the next achievable goal, step by step within the broader aims of the higher level goals: making to Lisbon in time for my flight to the US; biking around the world. I've found if you know how your current goal fits within the broader aim of a higher-level, longer-term goal, you can relax and enjoy the journey and learn to love the process of getting there.
So as the damp, rolling farmland of Northern France transitioned to the Loire Valley, then the pine forests south of Bordeaux, and the beaches of the Bay of Biscay, and before the Pyrenees rose out of the ground before me and the mountains of Spain led me to Madrid and then to Portugal and Lisbon, I can appreciate the day knowing that it's all working towards the greater aim. By focusing on the day, and not getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture, just knowing that each day represents a small piece of the puzzle that is your adventure, you can get quickly settle into the new, nomadic way of life and find little things to appreciate.
I could spend time talking to other tourers I met on the road, on their own journeys with their own stories, and chat to the incredibly generous people who provided me with food and accommodation. It's could spend time engaged in seeing how lives differ between those living in the farmland, compared to those in the city and those living in the mountains to those in the vineyards. By approaching the whole experience with a bit of humility, breaking down the trip to smaller sections in accordance with my limited capacity, I could start to see and appreciate the battles, struggles and triumphs of those I encountered, respecting that everyone is on their own journey with its own challenges. Trying to think this way has helped me to be able to even take a little bit of inspiration from something as small as a traffic queue, should I choose to, knowing that everyone is there because they're up, hustling and working for something.
Through the lens of your own vulnerabilities and limitations you can start to see that the building blocks of people are the same in places. Developing a respect for the individual journeys of others, combined with the time afforded to you on a long day in the saddle, leads your mind to eventually work out that no matter where you are in the world, who you are, or what you’re doing, you're always going to face a struggle at times and you've got to be working for something to get through it. Whether you're trying to bike around the world, or trying to get your 2 and 3 year old daughters to eat their toast before nursery, whilst you ready yourself for work and simultaneously entertain said chump cycling around the world, like one of my French hosts, you're going to face challenges, and fail on occasion. So logic would follow that if you're going to face challenges in whatever you do, you might as well face challenges in pursuit of something you are passionate about. Again, I forget where the quote comes from, but it was something along the lines of 'you can fail at what you don't love, so why not try something you do love?'
Which leads me back to my original thought pattern - reflecting more widely on the first couple of weeks on the road. By breaking down the overarching goal into smaller more manageable chunks, I've been able to survive the initial few days of anxiety, and feelings on vulnerability being solo on the road, and been able to find joy in the day knowing I'm on the right path. I can reflect knowing that at this stage in my life, before I start medical school in September 2019, I want to know more about people, which no doubt will assist in Medicine but also in whatever I want to try and contribute to with life. This adventure opens opportunities for me to do that. By witnessing the struggles, battles and joys of others I've met as I travel, I gain more respect for the individual and increase in gratitude for the circumstances in my own life. I'm trying to develop humility by observing more about how small individuals are in the world, but simultaneously how big individuals can be in other people's lives. I can take assurance on the tougher days knowing I'm on the right path by pursuing something I'm passionate about, so I can find joy and gratitude each morning. So by trying to humble myself a little more by recognising my flaws at the start of this trip, I've been able to see the same struggles in others, and now I'm trying to take inspiration from others on their road as I travel mine. By breaking it down, I can now come up and see more of the trip as a whole, finding the joy in the day but also reflect on wider purposes of the trip.
Well, that's the theory anyway. We'll see what the US brings and whether I'll be able to practice any of that.
So with Stage 1 of the this adventure ticked off, and my first anti-podal point reached in Madrid (two points on the opposite side of the Earth to officially count as cycling around the world - Auckland, NZ, being the second), I want to say a huge thank you for all the people who have supported me so far, via messages, music suggestions, charitable donations, accommodation, food and directions. I wouldn’t have been able to get this far without you! You have already made this voyage worthwhile with the amount that I have learned, so it is a sincere thanks from me.
Anyway, I should end this for fear of sounding like I'm writing self-help material. Plus I want to try and watch Deadpool 2 before this plane lands.